What, Exactly, Am I Preparing My Students For?

On February 14th, 19 year-old Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, armed with an AR-15 rifle and proceeded to murder 17 students and staff before he fled the scene and was quickly apprehended.  The tragedy was the third mass shooting with more than a dozen fatalities in only 4 months and the seventh mass shooting in the same period.  The event also brought a swift round of accusations and counter accusations about responsibility and apparent inaction to repeated calls to law enforcement over Cruz’s behavior.  The fallout of that is still ongoing, and it will certainly sort itself out over time.

What was less expected was the swift and, for now, sustained call for action from the very victims of the mass shooting, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.  America is caught in a cynical cycle where a mass shooting tragedy is met with a chorus of political “leaders” offering their “thoughts and prayers” and declaring that now is “not the time” to discuss policy changes that might address America’s unique problem with gun violence in general and with mass shootings in particular.  It was widely, sadly, believed that after 20 first graders were murdered in Sandy Hook in 2012 with little more than a round of “thoughts and prayers,” a call from President Obama for action, and zero action by Congress for years that nothing will change.  That belief seemed validated as the years ticked by with over 400 additional people shot in more than 200 shootings in schools.

There is a chance that might change.

The reason for that hope is the unexpected but inspiring “Never Again” movement that the high school survivors of Parkland have put together at breakneck speed. These students, raised entirely after the Columbine massacre, well-educated, media and social media savvy, have captured a tremendous amount of attention and have openly expressed the frustration and exasperation with the nation’s complete standstill on gun policy purchased by millions of dollars in political donations by the NRA.  Consider this speech by Senior Emma Gonzalez:

This interview with her classmate, David Hogg:

Cameron Kasky, asking Senator Marco Rubio if he will reject NRA donations:

Or Delaney Tarr explaining to lawmakers that they will not go away:

For their efforts and their eloquence, the teenaged leaders of the past three weeks have been subject to bizarre conspiracy theories, patronizing mocking by conservative pundits, and death threats.  So far, they show no signs of being deterred nor of losing their platform.

It would be remiss to not mention how activists and supporters of Black Lives Matter expressed both admiration of and support for the Parkland survivors, and dismay at how powerful figures in the media, in entertainment, and in politics never afforded similar attention and support for their protests:

It is also important to note the passion and dignity that Black Lives Matter brought and continues to bring to their protests, despite constant misrepresentation, backlash and police response, as evidenced by the arrest of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge after the death of Alton Sterling:

This is important because both Black Lives Matter and Never Again ask at least one clear question in common:  Is it possible to go about a daily life without constant fear of violence and death?  Both movements deserve answers in the affirmative, but neither are likely to get those answers soon.

It appears, also, that America’s teachers have been forced into the same question alongside the student activists.  Educators have been present at every one of the 400 school shootings since Sandy Hook, and they have been victims.  Teachers in American schools are tasked with training students through mandatory “lock down” drills in the event that the increasingly thinkable visits their schools.  During actual school shootings, teachers are responsible for following school procedures that are hopefully designed to keep their charges safe.  In the days after the Parkland murders, teachers shared stories of their discussions with students about what would happen in the event of a shooting in their school, and they have been, frankly, heart breaking.  A teacher in Ohio, Marissa Schimmoeller, explained how her students promised to “carry her” to safety as she is confined to a wheelchair, and other teachers took to twitter to explain their gut wrenching conversations with students in the wake of the Florida attack, like this one about how a teacher would have to lock her students into a closet from the OUTSIDE:

Teachers were further forced to wonder what their lives and safety mean when the President of the United States insisted upon using his social media platform to claim that arming teachers would be a big step in “solving” the problem:

I have already written at length about how absolutely terrible an idea this is.  Mark Webber details further points about the impracticality and expense of such an idea.  Peter Greene points out the incredible juxtaposition of all of the explicit criticism of teachers that has been at the center of our national education debate for, well, forever, but then assuming teachers can carry guns in school and be first responders in an actual crisis.  Unfortunately, since the President of the United States decided to interject, repeatedly, this terrible idea into the national discourse, it has become a part of the debate on what teachers ought to do in the face of gun violence in schools.

It would be tempting at this point to take comfort in raw numbers.  The reality is that the vast majority of America’s 50 million school aged children and their 3 million teachers go to school 180 days a year and never have more than a preparedness drill.  American education is a vast enterprise spanning 98,000 public schools spread across 15,000 school districts.  Students spend a total of 54 BILLION hours in public schools in every year, and Americans’ odds of dying in a mass shooting in any location are about 4 times less than the odds of choking to death on food.  But that is not how terrorism really works.  The sheer randomness of mass gun violence in our society means that even if we are very unlikely to die from such violence, we can never really dismiss the possibility, and the unique position America occupies in the developed world as the undisputed capital of gun violence and mass shootings cannot be dismissed either.  Besides, the odds of dying in a tornado in Kansas are also very low for any individual.  It is still prudent to have a storm cellar and a plan to get to it in an emergency.

Does this mean I have to change my teacher education curriculum?

This isn’t an idle consideration.  Since I moved from the classroom to teacher education in 1997, one of the core principles that has guided my work has been preparing future teachers for work far beyond instruction.  Gary Fenstermacher, interpreting the work of John Goodlad, states that teachers have to learn how to be “good stewards” of their school, meaning that they take responsibility for the well-being of the entire enterprise within the school within the context of free public education in society.  Further, teachers must practice communication and be informants to the community, they must understand and promote the role of citizenship in a democracy, and they must model transformational learning, demonstrating to students that they themselves are always learning deeply and meaningfully.  This is complex vision of teachers’ work that takes a tremendous amount of dedication and knowledge to put into practice and which the best teachers refine over the course of their careers.

The work beyond instruction points to an ethical responsibility for teachers that is both humbling and daunting.  How can I practice stewardship of the school and its role in the community if I do not confront bullying and abuse regardless of its source?  How can I be an effective communicator to parents and the community if I condescend to them or embrace pernicious stereotypes?  What kind of citizenship will I promote if I do not challenge injustice and the complacency that lets it flourish?  Teacher education that does not present these questions to future teachers fails to provide even the barest preparation for what teaching really is.

Do we now have no choice but to fold “What will you do if someone aims a gun at your students?” to teacher preparation?

On the one hand, this does seems like a “storm cellar in Kansas” concept.  You can go your entire life without ever needing it, but if you do not have it if the time comes, you are far worse off.  On the other hand, merely acknowledging this as a responsibility of teachers – as if it were taking attendance – without at least trying to challenge the insanity is a massive failure of moral imagination.  Perhaps this is why Black Lives Matter activists make so many people uncomfortable and why the Never Again activists have captured an available platform.  As the young people who have grown up in a system that is insufficiently outraged by the outrageous, they are not simply accepting it and are demanding to know why those in power will not use their legal authority to make it better.

Perhaps it will be sufficient for teacher preparation to follow the lead of NYU’s Steinhardt program with a crisis preparedness seminar centered on case studies of situations that arise in school and which brings in guidance counselors, other professionals, and students themselves to consider what can arise in schools — including shootings.  But I think this is stunningly insufficient if we do not add our voices to those calling for real and comprehensive answers to our gun problem, and if we fail to highlight how many schools are insufficiently prepared to meet their most pressing needs — a rich curriculum, guidance and full care of students, nutrition programs, fully funded and staffed libraries, working facilities — then we are merely acquiescing to further neglect of our students and co-workers.  Responding to the tragedies that have spanned Columbine and Sandyhook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas requires not to simply run children through preparedness drills, but also requires that we add our voices to the young activists demanding why our political system can offer them nothing more than drills layered with thoughts and prayers.


Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, classrooms, Corruption, politics, racism, school violence, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning

2 responses to “What, Exactly, Am I Preparing My Students For?

  1. Excellent blog post. Thank you! I have been having some of the same thoughts and wrote a short article for the NJ Council of Teachers of English e-newsletter Focus on a similar theme. We may also post it on the NJCTE blog.

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